Max Weber & Stratification
German sociologist Max Weber proposed a three-part view of economic and social stratification involving class, status, and party as manifestations of power seeking and display within advanced capitalist societies. Weber's thinking on stratification, first articulated in a handful of pages in his posthumous “Economy and Society” (1922), has formed the basis on much thinking about the relationships between individuals and groups, and between one group and another. This essay discusses German sociologist Max Weber's thinking about stratification, life chances and social action, then proceeds to some applications of his thought to American life in the twenty-first century. It concludes with a discussion contrasting Weber's views on class consciousness with those of Karl Marx.
Keywords Capitalism; Class; Class Consciousness; Economic Stratification; Life Chances; Party; Power; Social Action; Social Stratification; Status
In the space of only twenty pages in his posthumously published Economy and Society (1922), German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) set off what has become nearly a century of discussion about social and economic stratification in society (Barbalet, 1980, p. 401). Weber was concerned with understanding how individuals, acting as rational economic actors, could be roused to find common cause with others out of a sense of enlightened self-interest. Through the social, economic, and political actions and interactions of individuals acting in ad hoc groups, Weber argued, social strata, or layers, would be created and re-created over time. He understood his research project to be an exercise in abstraction, for the subjectivity of the individual human actor was the precise reason why social interactions and stratification could only be observed at a distance and over time (Bryant, 1976, p. 230). Weber never lived to complete his work on social stratification, but it has been carried forward by successive generations of sociologists.
Weber was one of the founding fathers of social science, his mind and work ranging widely over all areas of human activity. Unlike his counterparts in the social sciences, such as the French positivists Comte or Durkheim, Weber did not seek complete, airtight explanations of this human activity, acknowledging that all who seek to understand human behavior see through a glass darkly. Instead, Weber argued that partial, tentative understandings were all that social scientists could reasonably expect to achieve:
Our aim is the understanding of the uniqueness of the reality in which we move. We wish to understand on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise. As soon as we attempt to reflect about the way in which life confronts us in immediate concrete situations it presents an infinite multiplicity of successively and existentially emerging and disappearing events, both "within" and "outside" ourselves (as cited in Bryant, 1976, p. 232).
In other words, the most important thing to understand about the world is that it is ever changing, and more to the point, that humans are forever changing. For Weber, we are not merely human beings, but human actors, and it is our actions, taken altogether that make and change the world in which we live. However, because society is at bottom human, with all the unpredictability that humans display, we must accept some degree of uncertainty in our social science and not expect final answers or causes in any Aristotelian sense.
Weber's Concept of Stratification
When contemplating stratification, the mind immediately searches for appropriate similes: Is society set up like a layer cake, with different economic classes piled up from poorest on the bottom, to the richest on top? Are social strata set up as a pyramid, where the poor laborers at the bottom far outnumber the plutocrats at the top? Or is society more like a bank of elevators, where the social and economic fortunes of individuals and groups rise and fall over time?
Weber would not opt for any of these oversimplified images. He was, after all, a social scientist, and to understand Weber, both halves of that title must be held together in creative tension. Perhaps taking his cues from the work of pioneering nineteenth century geologists such as Charles Lyell (1797–1875), who argued that earth history could be read like a book by examining successive rock layers (or strata) of deposited fossils and sediments, Weber argued that there were strata in human society as well. By understanding how these social strata were "deposited," and the cultural "fossils" (such as values and customs) they contained, one could gain greater understanding into larger social trends.
Weber saw social stratification as the product of a complex and interconnected series of jostlings or graspings for power by individuals working through collectives, as made manifest in concepts of class, party and status (Barbalet, 1980, p. 404). Whether they have agreed with him or not about the causes and effects of social stratification, many sociologists over the past century have judged Weber's views on stratification to be nuanced, holistic and a good jumping-off point for further discussion and elaboration.
The Three Class System
Weber proposed a framework of social stratification to explain why human beings became almost invariably divided into socioeconomic strata when living in communities. Weber's three class system, as his understanding of social stratification became known, is based upon three ideal types: class, status and party. These three types, in turn, are for Weber little more than manifestations of power. Indeed, for Weber these three ideal types map to specific types of power:
• Status >Power through the social order
• Class >Power through the economic order
• Party >Power through the political order (Hurst, 2007, p. 202).
Weber himself gave the most lucid definitions of these various manifestations of power:
Now: 'classes,' status groups,' and 'parties' are phenomena of the distribution of power within a community.
In our terminology, 'classes' are not communities; they merely represent possible, and frequent, bases for communal action. We may speak of a 'class' when (1) a number of people have in common a specific causal component of their life chances, in so far as (2) this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income, and (3) is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets….
In contrast to classes, status groups are normally communities….we wish to designate as 'status situation' every typical component of the life fate of men that is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honor….
… 'parties' live in a house of 'power.' Their action is oriented towards the acquisition of social 'power,' that is to say, toward influencing a communal action no matter what its content may be. In principle, parties may exist in a social 'club' as well as in a 'state.'… They may represent ephemeral or enduring structures. Their means of attaining power may be quite varied, ranging from naked violence of any sort to canvassing for votes with coarse or subtle means: money, social influence, the force of speech, suggestion, clumsy hoax, and so on to the rougher or more artful tactics of obstruction in parliamentary bodies (as cited in Grusky et al., 2006, pp. 44-46).
For Weber, power in all its forms is both pursued and expressed. Individuals in status groups seek the approval of others. They practice, as Weber put it, a "specific style of life [that] … is not subservient to economic … purposes." Indeed, Weber notes that self-imposed class rules "may confine normal marriages within the status circle…" (cited in Bendix, 1977, p. 86).
Individuals also seek to attain class rank through economic power and the related accumulation and display of goods such as homes, cars, and other material objects. In contrast to status, Weber further defines a class as
any group of people … [who have the same] typical chance for a supply of goods, external living conditions, and personal life experiences, insofar as this chance is determined by the…power…to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income in a given economic order…."Class situation" is, in this sense, ultimately "market situation" (cited in Bendix, 1977, pp. 85-86).
Finally, individuals seek power through political engagement, such as membership in a political party. All three manifestations of seeking after power flow into and combine with the others, both within the lives of individuals and within communities as a whole, and in totality they express Weber's theory of stratification.
What is most interesting for Weber is not that human beings chase after such things, or even whether such a quest is worthwhile or noble, but why, in a given time and under certain cultural and historical circumstances, they choose certain means of acquiring power instead of others. In the industrialized world in which Weber and succeeding generations of Western sociologists lived, the common thread in all this seeking after power is that it takes place against the backdrop of a capitalist economic system involving private ownership of property and the means of production (or wealth creation). Power in all its various forms has thus become inextricably linked with economic muscle and the dispersal of wealth, primarily through employer-employee relationships or through political patronage.
An integral part of Weber's thinking on stratification (one which brings his thinking in this area in line with his work in areas such as religion and politics) is his understanding of social action. Social action involves the application of Weber's somewhat abstract and esoteric discussion of social and economic stratification to the sphere of human activity.
The aim is to improve one's life chances. These are individual and collective activities...
(The entire section is 4543 words.)